By Jan Wolfe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court on Tuesday issued a decision that could bolster efforts to disqualify members of Congress on the grounds that they voiced support for the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, saying a 150-year-old law does not shield lawmakers from such challenges.
In a written ruling, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals revived a lawsuit alleging U.S. Representative Madison Cawthorn is unfit for federal office.
The ruling will likely have little to no impact on Cawthorn because last week he lost his re-election bid in North Carolina’s Republican primary, but the decision is likely to be cited as an important precedent in future challenges.
The voters claimed Cawthorn voiced support for the violent Capitol attack, violating a provision of the U.S. Constitution known as the “Insurrectionist Disqualification Clause.”
Cawthorn was one of only two members of Congress who spoke at then-President Donald Trump’s rally that preceded the Capitol rioting. Cawthorn has vigorously denied that his actions and comments can be equated with “insurrection” against the United States.
The Insurrectionist Disqualification Clause, passed after the 19th-century U.S. Civil War, bars politicians from running for Congress if they have engaged in “insurrection or rebellion” against the United States, or “given aid or comfort” to the nation’s enemies.
The North Carolina voters are represented by Free Speech For People, an advocacy group that brought a similar, unsuccessful challenge to Republican U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene’s qualifications for office.
In that case, an administrative judge said challengers to Greene failed to prove she was unfit for the office.
A federal judge in March dismissed the challenge to Cawthorn’s candidacy, saying the Insurrectionist Disqualification Clause was effectively overridden by a law Congress passed in 1872 that granted amnesty to Confederates who opposed the Union in the Civil War.
The 4th Circuit reversed that decision, concluding that the 1872 law applied only to Civil War Confederates.
(Reporting by Jan Wolfe in Washington; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Jonathan Oatis)